“Decisions, Decisions,” by C.Y. Reid
Okay. Here goes, the first weekly terribleminds guest post — this one by C.Y. Reid, who would like to talk to you about his experiences writing a Choose Your Own Adventure Android app. Welcome him, and don’t hesitate to drop down into the comments section and ask the dude some questions. Please to enjoy.
Have you ever made a really difficult decision? One that’s plagued you for days on end, the resulting nervous state of emotional limbo never quite seeming to dissipate despite what you’re doing, where you are, or what’s doing its best to distract you? We’ve all been there, and it’s tough.
Now, I’m not talking about the stuff that holds a conventional sense of gravitas. One university or another. One car, one coffin, one career or another. I’m talking about the ridiculously bizarre decisions we fixate on to the point of generating our own internalised state of OCD. Which sandwich to have for lunch. Which bus to get. Which film to watch.
These decisions are what we agonise over more often than those with more serious consequences (though I’d argue that a bad sandwich is pretty serious), because they occur more often, and sometimes form part of an overall set of choices that define our lives. With choose-your-own-adventure writing, you’re not offering people constant, life-changing choices – you’re offering them the small beat-by-beat movements, occasionally punctuated by cliff-edge decisions, like how to fight a dragon, or how best to shut down your imagination while reading Chuck’s search term bingo posts.
It’s best to think of a choose-your-own-adventure novel like the roots of an old oak tree. You’re starting out from the trunk, the body of work that forms the basis for everything else – the world-fluff. Every smattering of nutrients you suck up through exploring the roots travels back up towards the surface, contributing to an ever-growing understanding of the world you’re exploring, page by page, in a far more direct and interactive way than you’re usually allowed to.
But each branching path can’t just be an obvious choice; a long, spiralling, weathered finger of wood with the resilience of aeons underground, or a short, dead stump. You have to make every single fork in the road matter just as much, and that means you can’t simply write sword-or-white-flag choices. A lot of recent videogames have featured choose-your-own-adventure elements, from Fable’s simplistic good-and-evil system to Mass Effect’s conversation wheel.
But the problem with these choices, and a lot of the choices I see in choose-your-own-adventure fiction is that they’re all based around an underlying theme of black-and-white morality. That theme is what is going to not only kill off half your pages, due to the fact that most readers will elect not to rape and pillage the townsfolk, rather than save and reassure them, but it’s also going to mean that the reader’s choices are simply a reflex.
Indecision generates fear, and I think that’s one of the reasons we get so stressed out about whether or not to dash to the duty-free just when our gate number is due at any moment. There’s that internal sensation of horror that pervades our decision, and I think by making people stop and think, you’re generating an adventure that means something to the reader.
Some storytellers think that they need an action beat every so many pages. But with this, every page in a choose-your-own-adventure tale is an action beat. Life isn’t a passenger experience, and if you’re offering someone a sense of interactivity within your fiction, you have to commit – half-arsing it just leaves them feeling like they’re playing within a sandbox, but you’re only letting them have the ambulance and the Tonka truck, rather than the Hot Wheels dream machines you’re dabbling with in the background.
If you want to write a choose-your-own-adventure novel (please do, it’s an art form that deserves more attention), I salute you, because as a writer, it’s brave of you. To hand one of the reins over to the reader and step back, knowing that they might only see less than a third of the pages you’ve written, perhaps never even reading through again to get a different ending, is bold. So be bold, and allow them to choose adventure.